Well that didn’t quite go as planned. I had told Rob and Brett that I had a layover in Taiwan before I’d meet them in the Ho Chi Minh airport later that day. Turns out my flight landed in Seoul, Korea. Little ways off. We all made it to Ho Chi Minh safe and sound and met up right in front of our hotel later in the day. Just walking down the block from the hotel, you could tell this was a whole different world. One of the first sights was of a bowl of skinned frogs that were being sold in the large Ben Thanh market just down the street.
This trip had one rule: expect the unexpected. In fact, we didn’t even have an itinerary when we landed so we headed to a local café to figure some stuff out. After a little research, looking at a calendar and skimming through Lonely Planet, we settled on these destinations: Ho Chi Minh, Cu Chi Tunnels, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and a stopover at the Korean DMZ.
Priority number one here was booking travel for the rest of the trip. We hit up a travel agency office across the street and booked out flights to Hanoi and Siem Reap with a young Vietnamese employee. I’m sure the commission off all our flights made his day. After getting everything straightened out, we set out exploring the neighborhood. Sidewalk vendors sold chicken cooked on homemade grills and people tried to get us to buy everything from sunglasses to toe-nail clippers. Shops in the neighborhood sold electronics, fancy clothes or were hair salons (which we later realized converted to brothels after dark). But by far the most interesting spot in the neighborhood was the market where we had seen the skinned frogs earlier that day. They sold everything here and the whole place smelled like a dirty butcher shop. You’d walk through and girls would grab your wrist and try to shove their t-shirts or souvenirs in your face. Knock-off backpacks, purses, watches and sunglasses galore, we had some fun bargaining a couple vendors down to 20% of their original asking price.
After wandering into the tourist side of town, we saw a tour to visit some of the tunnels dug in the war just outside the city near Cu Chi where local farmers rebelled against American troops. We signed up for an afternoon tour and hopped on a bus 5 minutes later.
“’cus me. My name John Wayne,” our tour guide introduced himself. “We go to Cu Chi tunners to see how us Vietnamese people fight during the war.” Before John Wayne could get through his opening speech, the bus slammed on the brakes and we heard something crash into the grill. We had just tagged a guy on a motorbike trying to merge into our lane. The bus driver seemed pissed off and yelled at the guy outside who was struggling to stand up. Once he got to the side of the road, we drove on by and John Wayne explained how the guy on the bike was a bad driver before continuing his spiel. The site of the tunnels was quite the tourist trap. It sold grenade and bullet lighters and let you shoot a variety of assault rifles at their own shooting range. Naturally, we all had to try out the AK-47s. The rest of the site had replicas of spiked traps and weapons used by the Vietcong. We also munched on tapioca root that was a staple of the people living in the tunnels during the war. The tunnels themselves were only around 3 feet tall and maybe 2 feet wide. The whole tour emphasized the determination and resilience of the Vietnamese people against the oppressive American occupation. We didn’t think much of it at the time.
The next morning we saw another side to the war. We visited the War Remnants Museum which has a handful of American tanks and war places parked out front. Inside we were struck by exhibits focused on various massacres of civilians, international support for the Vietnamese people and the devastating effects of Agent Orange. The whole thing hit me like a brick in the stomach when we got back outside and people looked at us because we were American. Later on in the trip, some Aussie tourist asked if we were following in dad’s footsteps, we were all very thankful to say no.
We were hitting all of the sites pretty easily in our short time in Ho Chi Minh. That being said, just getting around town was a difficult task. Motorbikes swarmed the streets like an army of bees flying from one place to the next. Crossing the street was a simple action of bravery and luck as you had to just go for it and hope to weave your way through oncoming traffic. Brett and I were a little more intrigued by the whole thing than was Rob. We gathered enough courage to rent motorbikes for the rest of the day for $5 to experience the clusterf*ck that was traffic in Ho Chi Minh.
Check back later for a video of Brett and I on motorbikes.
Lunch included fried crocodile spring rolls and a bowl of pho ga (chicken soup). For dinner we hit up an outdoor bbq restaurant we had spotted from the motorbikes earlier. We grilled our own steak, chicken and rabbit on a little propane stove at the center of our table. I was beginning to love the food here. After a long day running around the city, we headed to an upscale hotel in the middle of town for some drinks on their rooftop bar. Brett and I decided to get after it a little and ordered a bottle or tequila ($30). After all, we were at one of the nicest bars in the city. The next day we had to take off north for Hanoi.
We got to the airport for our afternoon flight about an hour early and were shocked to find out travel agent from a couple days before waiting for us in the main terminal. He had driven all the way out there to meet us because Brett hadn’t signed one of the receipts for a later flight. Talk about dedication to your job.
We got picked up in Hanoi by a energetic taxi driver who shuttled us from the airport that was a ways outside the city to the old district. On our ride, he was double fisting two cell phones as he texted on both while driving with his elbows. The guy also seemed to aim at motorbikes until they acknowledged his presence and yielded. We eventually got to our hotel safe and sound, thank god. It was down a back alley that was a few blocks from a central park that was a hub for tourists and nightlife. We wandered around Hanoi for awhile looking for a place to book a cruise in Halong Bay the next day. I didn’t like Hanoi as much as Ho Chi Minh. The streets were more crowded, people less friendly and food not quite so good. The old district has some really old architecture from colonial times that was pretty cool though. We finally booked a cruise and took off the next morning for the bay.
We ended up getting a private boat because it was low season for tourism with Australia and New Zealand in winter. Our guide Son welcomed us with a drink of watermelon juice and introduced us to the 5 man crew that would be serving us for the 1 night, 2 day cruise. We set sail out of port and navigated through some of the 2000 small islands scattering the bay. Each one jutted up from the ocean with rock walls covered by lush green plants. Eagles soared overhead and swooped close to our boat hoping to grab some food. This was awesome. The food was unreal too. Mad props to our chef who even took time to make an ornate carving of an eagle from a kind of pumpkin. We set anchor after lunch and drove a dingy ashore for Son to show us around. We ducked into a cave, went kayaking, swam and played a little friendly game of soccer. Son and I whooped on Brett and Rob as the tide came in and ruined our field. We spent the night in a little cove where we ate dinner at sunset and watched a thunderstorm roll in from far away. The next day we did some flips off the top deck for a morning swim and took the dingy around a fishing village to say hi to people who lived here year-round. The whole cruise was easily one of the highlights of the trip and honestly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life. After sailing back to port and saying thanks to the crew, we bused back to Hanoi for the night before flying to Siem Reap. At the airport, Rob watched the Brewers get dominated by the Red Sox while Brett and I took pictures of the vacuum sealed snake in the frozen food section of a small store. We took off and said goodbye to Vietnam….hello Cambodia.
Cambodian customs consisted of a guy on the side of an aisle waiving people through the gates. I’m pretty sure there are little to no laws in the whole country. We had heard rumors that tourists could pay to shoot rocket launchers at cows if they really wanted to. Everything was dirt cheap too. A motorbike ride from the airport to our hotel was $2 and to hire our drivers for the entirety of the next day for a tour around the temples of Angkor Wat was just $20. The first night in Siem Reap, we walked around the night market and let our curiosity get the best of us as we paid $2 to put our feet in a pool of fish that sucked off your dead skin. It was actually pretty relaxing after you got over the initial sensation of a few dozen fish tickling your feet. We also hit up dinner in the main tourist area called Pub Street. I asked our waitress if she could make the traditional Khmer curry spicy. Bad idea. I was sweating and crying halfway through dinner and had to force myself to finish a little bit more before dousing the fire in my mouth with a few glasses of water. Brett and Rob thought it was hilarious but were not too happy with me later in the night.
We woke up the next morning at 5 AM to meet our three motorbike guides in front of the hotel to take us to witness sunrise over the main temple of Angkor Wat. The main temple is massive with a river moat that surrounds it by ¾ of a mile on all sides. A single stone bridge allows people to get onto the island that houses just the one main temple out of a few dozen others that litter the surrounding jungle. Every stone used in castle-like fortress has two holes drilled in the sides that allowed elephants to pull them over 25 km from the mountains nearby. Once the entire temple was constructed, detailed stonework was done to decorate every last inch of stone all the way to the tops of the towers. We explored the inside of the temple before walking around its outskirts and stumbling upon a family of monkeys playing on the outer wall. They would throw each other off like a game of king of the hill before a big guy would come claim their spot. We were amazed at the pure size of the main temple but had no idea how far the temple complex stretched into the jungle. Each new king of the Khmer empire built an entirely new temple that could take up to 60 years to complete. For the rest of the morning, we cruised through probably 8 other temples with guides offering elephant rides in between; it all resembled a scene from the Jungle Book. No wonder they chose the tree temple here to film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Rob had to take the opportunity to crack a joke about Angelina Jolie adding to her collection of kids from UNESCO world heritage sites.
We flew through the temples which Lonely Planet recommends you spend up to a week exploring and asked our motorbike guides what else we should check out. They told us that they could take us out to a floating village that lined a river that flowed into Tonle Sap Lake. The ride out there took us across a plain of rice fields where you could see nothing in the distance but farm after farm of green fields. The scenery was spectacular until we were hit with some of the scenes of poverty in the village. People lived on tiny boats with shacks built out of garbage bags and random plywood. Guys bathed 30 ft downstream from where a mother was hanging or baby off the side of the boat to poop in the water. It was sad to see people living in such poor and diseased circumstances. The fact that we could get a beer back in town for $0.50 didn’t quite seem right anymore after seeing the floating village. The boat tour stopped when the river hit the lake at a souvenir shop that also housed a dozen alligators and a huge python. It was quite the boat trip.
When we got back to the hotel, Brett and I got an hour long massage while Rob hit the pool for some relaxation. We returned to the same restaurant that had destroyed my intestines the night before. The same waitress joked with Brett about marrying an American guy… Rob and I weren’t so sure if she was joking. After dinner we hopped next door to Temple Club for a few drinks. We ended up putting down drinks like Charlie Sheen and that’s when the night picked up. I danced with a girl from Jamaica while Brett chased after some Swedish girl who turned out to be Dutch. Rob was busy the whole time rocking his fake Ray-Ban sunglasses and tank top on the dance floor. Sooner or later we met up with some British guys who were on our level and ended up with our waitresses at a local Cambodian bar where everyone stared at us when we walked in. I ended up getting separated from the group and grabbed a tuk-tuk (motorbike taxi with carriage) to go back to the hotel. Meanwhile, Brett and Rob were wondering where I had gone so they decided to call it a night and head to the hotel too. They hung out for awhile out front taking pictures with our waitresses and their tuk-tuk driver when all of a sudden another tuk-tuk flew past the hotel down the empty street.
“Hey! Wasn’t that your friend?” yelled their driver.
Turns out, I had been kidnapped by my tuk-tuk driver and taken around the city as he tried to get me to pick up prostitutes and visit brothels. After finally cursing him out, he agreed to take me back to the hotel but instead drove right past it on our way out of town. Thank god Brett and Rob saw me fly by because they jumped in their tuk-tuk and had to chase me down in a high-speed chase and cut off my driver before he would stop. I threw the guy $5 (way more than the ride was worth) and hoped he would just let us go home. He followed us yelling obscenities but everything worked out in the end. We had to wake up 2 hours later to catch our bus out of town.
Rob woke us up yelling that our bus was out front to take us to Phnom Penh. We threw our stuff in our backpacks and ran threw the lobby. The bus was supposed to take around 5 and a half hours but ended up taking more like 8 as we stopped probably 15 times for random passengers to get on or off. Luckily, I slept through the entire thing. We finally got to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and sat on the grass in front of the Royal Palace all afternoon nursing out hangovers. Our flight left around 10 pm so we hit up a rooftop bar for a couple drinks before beginning the long trek home. I boarded a separate flight from Rob and Brett but we planned on meeting up in Incheon International Airport just outside of Seoul, Korea.
I wandered through the halls of duty free shops of Cartier and Salvatore Ferragamo and into the customs line at 6 AM. I eventually met the other guys at around 7 next to our stopover tour desk that was gonna take us up to the DMZ. We all passed out on the 2 hour bus ride up to the border and was woken up by our tour guide, Sunny, when we got there. First stop was on overlook of Freedom Bridge that was built by the founder of Hyundai in hope he could one day return to North Korea. Nearby, an old train carcass was on display. It was a South Korean train accidentally destroyed as it crossed the border a long time ago. Ironically enough, we had read a CNN news story about a week earlier about South Korean troops accidently firing on Korean Air passenger plane headed for Incheon as they mistook it for a North Korean fighter jet. It was a very fresh reminder about how tense things were up here. Tank traps were ready to be deployed and signs warning of land mines lined the side of the road. Our next stop on the tour was at the 3rd
tunnel of aggression. Only 27 miles from Seoul, the 1.1 mile long tunnel was discovered by South Korea in 1978 nearly 250 ft below ground. It is said that within an hour, North Korea could have shuttled upwards of 10,000 troops into the south through this tunnel. This was only the 3rd
out of 4 tunnels so far discovered. Once we got back to the surface, it was time for our look into North Korea. We drove up to a lookout just above the tunnel which looked over a large valley. Here, you could see two enormous flag poles separated by a river. The North Korean pole is the tallest in the world and is the result of years of out-doing one another in height. Below the North’s pole is an entire propaganda village that lies empty but is there to display the supposed prosperous life citizens in the North can live. What was even more surprising was a highway that bridged the river where South Korean managers crossed daily to work on factories right across the border in the North as Kim Jung-Il allows citizens to work in South Korean owned businesses. It was eerie to peer across the valley and know that that world was so much different than ours. Our tour was over and we hopped back on the bus to go back to Incheon International.
Some 16 hours later we were back in the U.S. No more elephants or crocodile spring rolls, no more John Wayne or beautiful ocean cruises. At that point we were just happy to be back….but that was quite a trip.